Monday, December 14, 2015
The Whole Woman
For 30 years, I have done my best to champion all the styles of feminism that came to public attention. Though I disagreed with some of the strategies and was troubled by some of the more fundamental conflicts, it was not until feminists of my own generation began to assert with apparent seriousness that feminism had gone too far that the fire flared up in my belly.
When the lifestyle feminists chimed in that feminism had gone just far enough in giving them the right to "have it all"—i.e., money, sex and fashion—it would have been inexcusable to remain silent.
In 1970, the movement was called "women's liberation" or, contemptuously, "Women's Lib." When the name "libbers" was dropped for "feminists," we were all relieved. What none of us noticed was that the ideal of liberation was fading out with the word. We were settling for equality.
Liberation struggles are not about assimilation, but about asserting difference, endowing that difference with dignity and prestige, and insisting on it as a condition of self-definition and self-determination.
Women's liberation did not see the female's potential in terms of the male's actual; the visionary feminists of the late sixties and early seventies knew that women could never find freedom by agreeing to live the lives of unfree men.
Seekers after equality clamoured to be admitted to smoke-filled male haunts. Liberationists sought the world over for clues to what women's lives could be like if they were free to define their own values, order their own priorities and decide their own fate.
"The Female Eunuch" was one feminist text that did not argue for equality. At a debate in Oxford, one William J. Clinton heard me arguing that equality legislation could not give me the right to have broad hips or hairy thighs, to be at ease in my woman's body.
Thirty years on, femininity is still compulsory for women—and has become an option for men—while genuine femaleness remains grotesque to the point of obscenity. Meanwhile, the price of the small advances we have made towards sexual equality has been the denial of femaleness as any kind of a distinguishing character.
In the last 30 years, women have come a long, long way; our lives are nobler and richer than they were, but they are also fiendishly difficult.
The career woman does not know if she is to do her job like a man, or like herself. Is she supposed to change the organisation, or knuckle under to it? Is she supposed to endure harassment, or kick ass and take names? Is motherhood a privilege or a punishment?
It is now understood that women can do anything that men can do: anyone who tries to stop them will be breaking the law. Even the President of the United States, the most powerful person in the world, can be called to account by a female nobody who accuses him of asking her to fellate him.
Power indeed! The future is female, we are told. Feminism has served its purpose and should now eff off. Feminism was long hair, dungarees and dangling earrings; post-feminism was business suits, big hair and lipstick; post-post-feminism was ostentatious sluttishness and disorderly behaviour.
We all agree that women should have equal pay for equal work, be equal before the law, do no more housework than men do, spend no more time with children than men do. Or do we? If the future is men and women dwelling as images of each other in a world unchanged, it is a nightmare.
In "The Female Eunuch", I argued that every girl child is conceived as a whole woman but, from the time of her birth to her death, she is progressively disabled. A woman's first duty to herself is to survive this process, then to recognise it, then to take measures to defend herself against it.
For years after "The Female Eunuch" was written, I travelled the earth to see if I could glimpse a surviving whole woman. She would be a woman who did not exist to embody male sexual fantasies or rely upon a man to endow her with identity and social status; a woman who did not have to be beautiful, who could be clever, who would grow in authority as she aged.
I gazed at women in segregated societies and found them in many ways stronger than women who would not go into a theatre or a restaurant without a man. Osage women in Oklahoma, and Anmatyerre and Pitjantjatara women in Central Australia, taught me about survival.
No sooner had I caught sight of the whole woman than western marketing came blaring down upon her with its vast panoply of spectacular effects, strutting and trumpeting the highly seductive gospel of salvation according to hipless, wombless, hard-titted Barbie.
My strong women thrust their muscular feet into high heels and learned to totter; they stuffed their useful breasts into brassieres and, instead of mothers' milk, fed commercial formulae made up with dirty water to their children; they spent their tiny store of cash on lipstick and nail varnish, and were made modern. While western feminists were valiantly contending for a key to the executive washroom, the feminine stereotype was completing her conquest of the world.
This insidious process was floated on the lie of the sexual revolution. Along with spurious equality and flirty femininity, we were sold sexual "freedom." One man's sexual freedom is another man's—or woman's or child's—sexual thraldom.
In February 1997, a National Opinion Poll found that "nearly seven out of 10 women feel political parties do not pay sufficient attention to issues of importance to women." These women would not answer to the description of feminist, but if feminism is the consciousness of women's oppression, they were not afraid to display it.
Even now, women may enter political institutions only after those institutions have formed them in the institutional mould; the more female politicians a parliament may boast, the less likely it is to address women's issues.